F R E S H M A N   S E M I N A R S

Expanding boundaries of thought

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- I want to play some music for you," Valerie Smith told the 14 students in her freshman seminar, "Religion and Resistance in Narratives of Slavery." "Can we dance?" one student asked. "If you are so moved," Smith replied with a smile, prompting laughter from the students.

Valerie Smith  

Professor Valerie Smith, laft, who directs the Program in African-American Studies, encourages students in her freshman seminar on "Religion and Resistance in Narratives of Slavery" to think "in more complicated and subtle ways"about the topic.

As a homework assignment, Smith had asked the students to write a short piece addressing what literacy had meant in the lives of American slaves.

"You all assumed literacy meant the ability to read and write," Smith told the students, who were assembled around a table in a seminar room in Blair Arch. "Might it mean something else?"

Smith walked over to the CD player in the corner and pressed the "play" button. A 1961 choral arrangement of "Steal Away to Jesus" filled the room. "Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus ...," the chorus sang. The class listened closely, and then discussed with Smith how spirituals functioned as both a source of emotional comfort in the slaves' lives and as a means of resistance.

"'Steal Away to Jesus' was often used to encourage slaves to join an imminent escape attempt," said Smith, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and director of the Program in African-American Studies. "It was used to send codes."

As the semester progresses, the class will explore the contradictory roles that religion played in slavery: Masters often used the Bible to justify slavery, and at the same time religious faith was a source of inspiration for slaves. Smith plans to play more music for the class to accompany the texts the students will be reading, which include "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs and "Flight to Canada" by Ishmael Reed.

"I want the students to begin to think in more complicated and subtle ways about the political and spiritual uses of religion in the institution of slavery," Smith said.

The students are eager to do so. Maureen O'Connor hopes the class will "broaden my horizons and help me become a better writer," she said.

"I had never read a slave narrative," said freshman Francisco Nava. "I needed to fill a gap [in my education]." He looks forward to the challenge the course will pose for him. "Some people like to take courses they have some experience in, but I really took to heart the message of the University to try new things."

He is delighted by the energetic discussions that have taken place in the seminar, where the students eagerly have offered their thoughts about the readings and responses to the questions Smith has posed. "In a freshman seminar, ideas are the currency," said Nava. "I wouldn't be surprised if the professor learned something."